Hatching habitat and hope

Durham’s Rancho Esquon gives back to nature and to the kids

QUACK, QUACK!<br>Students in Barbara Wallace’s second-grade class hold on tight just prior to setting free their feathery friends.

Students in Barbara Wallace’s second-grade class hold on tight just prior to setting free their feathery friends.

Photo By Melissa Daugherty

Nature school:
Educators and youth leaders interested in coordinating a trip to Rancho Esquon should contact Shane Romain at (916) 275-1014 or shane_romain@calwaterfowl.org.

Loretta Gardiner undoubtedly has the coolest job at Rancho Esquon, a sprawling local ranch that raises a very special crop besides rice and almonds.

From April to August, she’s charged with hatching and caring for birds, mostly mallard ducks, but also other species, including pheasants, turkeys and wood ducks whose eggs are picked up from the ranch and neighboring Butte County properties. Known as the egg lady, Gardiner is the voice behind 1-866-DUC-EGGS, the number that patches farmers and landowners into a program that salvages eggs.

“I wish this went year round and I could stay here,” said Gardiner, who readily admits egg patrol trumps her other tasks during fall’s rice harvest.

During this busy season, she, along with many volunteers, collects more than 1,000 eggs for the sophisticated hatching operation she oversees at the 7,000-acre spread just south of Durham. In an air-conditioned lab, the eggs are carefully placed within special high-tech incubators.

Equipped with circulating air and a tray of water, the machines help mimic the moist conditions the eggs would experience had their mothers come off of wetlands to nest. Set to a temperature of 100 degrees and rotating often to keep the growing birds exercised, the incubators each hold nearly 200 eggs and are far from the box-and-light setups used to hatch chickens or other domesticated birds.

Gardiner’s sister, Diane Valentine, a volunteer, notes that the only eggs gathered are those that would otherwise be destroyed or abandoned during the harvest of rice, hay and other crops.

“We would much rather have Mother Nature do her job,” Valentine said, “but sometimes she needs a little help.”

Currently, eggs are coming in from a variety of farms, especially hay fields, many of which are in the prime cutting season. Because mallards build their nests in tall grass, the eggs laid in agricultural regions are often in harm’s way.

The birds immediately took to the water like … well … ducks.

Photo By Melissa Daugherty

Modeled after a similar egg-salvage program in Marysville, the facility is in its sixth season tending to and releasing wild birds. After they hatch, the young birds are kept in groups based on age, and are introduced to water after about three days in special holding pens. Gardiner is careful to have as little contact with the animals as possible, keeping them fearful of people as they would be had they hatched without human intervention. The birds all get banded, and are released at the ranch or another wetlands destination after about five weeks.

Rancho Esquon is a private ranch with about 4,000 acres of rice, more than 800 acres of almond orchards, and, most important to the birds, a wildlife area that for many of the animals is their first introduction to the great outdoors.

Starting with 320 acres back in 1990, the area has grown to more than 900 acres today, said Rick Ponciano, who manages the ranch. Since that time, he has planted about 25,000 trees to bolster the habitat surrounding the restored wetlands—former rice fields, which now serve as home to ducks and a variety of species of birds and other animals.

The egg-salvage program is conducted in cooperation with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In fact, it’s actually illegal to hatch wild duck eggs without a special permit from the federal agency. While the setup at the ranch takes quite a bit of effort, Ponciano pointed out that it takes ranchers only a few minutes out of their day to collect eggs.

“And it’s the right thing to do,” he added.

From a historical standpoint, the wetlands at the ranch are relatively young, so planting trees and other native species has helped speed up the growth of habitat that would take much longer to develop if simply left alone. Grown on-site from cuttings, about 2,000 native trees, such as cottonwoods, oaks and willows, are planted annually. The area takes constant work and the cost to pump in water isn’t cheap either, Ponciano added.

Still, the conservation effort helps sustain the waterfowl population of the Pacific Flyway, the 3,000-mile route of migrating birds stretching from Canada to South America. California, and the North Valley, is a prime stopover for many species seeking rest, food and a place to breed. A partnership between the ranch and FWS guarantees that the restored property will remain habitat indefinitely.

Ponciano said one of the goals at the ranch is to share the importance of conservation with folks outside of the operation.

“It’s not all about Rancho Esquon; it’s about the region as a whole,” said Ponciano, noting how people from all around the valley bring eggs to the facility.

DUCK DYNAMO<br>Loretta Gardiner has a way with baby birds, like this newly hatched pheasant (left) and mallard.

Photo By Melissa Daugherty

On Thursday (June 5), a second-grade class from Chico’s Sierra View Elementary spent the last day of the school year at the ranch, an outdoor classroom where the kids got up close with nature instead of reading about it. The visit was organized through a partnership between Rancho Esquon and the California Waterfowl Association, a Sacramento-based nonprofit conservation and education organization largely supported by hunters.

Shane Romain, CWA’s education liaison in Chico, led the children on an extensive tour of the ranch, giving them hands-on lessons about conservation, migration, food webs, lifecycles, and, overall, a stellar example of agricultural interests supporting wildlife.

A patient guide, Romain encouraged the children to use their detective skills to locate various species, including the American bittern, a water-loving bird that’s hard to spot but makes a distinctive call that resembles dripping water. One of the primary goals of the program, he said, is to get the kids interested in conservation.

“Without young people getting outside and exploring wetlands and parks, those places don’t have a worth to them in their lives,” he said.

The kids were the last class of the spring semester to visit the program, which will continue this summer with area youth groups.

For the children, who chronicled their adventures in a journal, one of the most exciting activities of the day took place at the wetlands. Gardiner had rounded up about 50 young ducks for the group to set free. One by one, she carefully placed a bird into each child’s hands. Some of the livelier ones wriggled their way free from their smiling handlers, while many others entered the wetlands in style during an in-unison send-off.

Teacher Barbara Wallace said the field trip fit in perfectly with the class’ studies of the life cycle.

Wallace was already somewhat familiar with the ranch, having previously brought turkey eggs from her own property to the salvage facility. But the day proved to be an amazing opportunity and a terrific way for her kids to start their summer vacation.

“To see this is so awesome,” she said. “What a learning experience.”